Some of our Spitfires are missing: Doubts over existence of 160 WW2 fighter planes in Burma

A former collaborator of David Cundall – the maverick
behind the claims – calls him a ‘dreamer’

As the media frenzy over the search for Spitfires allegedly buried in Burma ran out of steam last week, with doubts raised about their very existence, the man chiefly responsible for getting the project off the ground was sorely tempted to say "I told you so".

Excitement at the prospect of exhuming up to 160 of the historic warplanes, which, it was claimed, the British had buried at the end of the Second World War, threatened to curdle after the man leading the search, the Lincolnshire farmer David Cundall, called off a press conference on Thursday because the search at Mingaladon airfield in Rangoon had drawn a blank.

Keith Win, the son of a Burmese policeman and founder of the Myanmar-British Business Association, commented: "It could be that they've got completely the wrong aerodrome. We'd been out there a number of times and we couldn't find anything. As soon as you mention Spitfires to David Cundall, he's off, without doing proper research.

"During an earlier dig, they claimed to have found a crate, but there was no picture of the crate and I'm thinking, 'We still haven't found any evidence. There's nothing concrete.' Mr Cundall is claiming there are 160 Spitfires, but the only picture released so far is of a British war veteran holding a framed picture of a Spitfire."

Mr Win went into partnership with David Cundall to recover the airplanes in 1999. Stories about the planes have been in circulation since the early 1970s, and Mr Cundall heard about them from a fellow Spitfire enthusiast in the mid-1990s. The problem was that Burma, in the grip of a brutal military junta and under Western sanctions, was completely out of bounds.

Mr Win said, "Mr Cundall approached me in 1997. He said, 'I'm involved in this project – we've been trying to get into Burma.'" Mr Cundall had found the right person: with friends and relatives on both sides of Burma's political divide, Mr Win had been trying to effect a reconciliation within the country. Subsequently, he had a casual encounter with Brigadier-General Khin Nyunt, one of the leaders of the junta, and requested a meeting, to which Khin Nyunt agreed.

"He must have thought I had come with a message from the British government," said Mr Win, "because at the meeting in his office there was also the Foreign Minister and the Burmese ambassador to London, and a TV crew and photographers. I explained the Spitfire project and they listened politely." As a result, the door to Burma swung open. As a thank you, he gave them "a bottle of whisky and a book about the economy". Like Mr Cundall, Mr Win fell under the spell of the warplane story, and threw himself into the research.

His trawling among veterans yielded the 91-year-old ex-Army private Stanley Coombe, whom Mr Cundall brought out with him to Burma on his current visit, and who claimed last week that they were digging in the wrong place.

"Stanley claimed he had seen six Spitfires being buried," Mr Win said, "and it stuck in his memory because they were such large crates." He was the first real eye-witness they had located – but the fact that he was the only one troubled Mr Win. "I thought, this still sounds far-fetched: why is it that only one person saw the burial?

"In 1997, I contacted Brigadier Derrick Baynham, who had been the aide-de-camp to Reginald Dorman-Smith, the British governor of Burma at the end of the war. He had been an officer in the Special Operations Executive and he said, 'This story cannot be true. I would have known about it. I would have seen documents.' So you had people like him, at a high level, saying 'This is not possible,' and the only person saying yes was a private."

Relations between the two men foundered in 2000 when Mr Win says Mr Cundall dumped him in Rangoon and vanished. "He left me stranded. He ran out of money and said he was going back to the UK to get some. I waited for him for eight days in a service apartment in Rangoon, and I couldn't contact him. Finally, I realised he wasn't coming back." He says he paid the accommodation bill of £5,500 out of his own pocket then spent years trying to get the money back.

Another disenchanted former collaborator has a similar story. Malcolm Weale is a geophysicist and aviation archaeologist who runs a Norfolk-based company called Geofizz Ltd. "I met Mr Cundall in 2004 after I was involved in a dig for a Hurricane in London," he says. "I was out in Burma with his team for about a month, but I was pretty much left stranded: they just cleared off, leaving me with a debt of several thousand pounds to pay. I had to do a bunk from the hotel early in the morning."

During his work with Mr Cundall in Burma, he said, "we got some very interesting readings, but they could be lots of other things – buried pipes, metals and so on: you always pick up anomalies at an airfield.

"David seems a little bit erratic: he runs from pillar to post, promising things to many different people. He's a dreamer – he wants to make himself out to be a bit of an Indiana Jones. Myself, I'm very, very sceptical about the story."

By contrast, Keith Win still believes the search could yield results. "I think there might be two or three Spitfires, probably crashed," he said.

"They were used in that theatre. There are three airfields to look in… The game's not over yet."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value

Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas